CHENGDU, China — The first panda sighting happens soon after visitors step off the plane here, on the way to baggage claim.
Stuffed pandas pose on AstroTurf at the airport, their beady plastic eyes circled in black. Later, visitors will spot pandas staring back from store marquees and taxicab decals all over this metropolitan region of 14 million in southwestern China. Chengdu is a booming high-tech hub: If you’re reading this on an electronic device, that device might well have started life here. But fiery cuisine — and pandas — came first.
Above: A panda lounges on top of a tree at the new panda center in Gengda. This location replaces the Wolong Panda Center in Hetaoping, China, that was damaged in a May 2008 earthquake.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo has four of the animals, including its newest addition, Bei Bei, who is making his public debut Jan. 16. In China, pandas come by the dozen, available for easy viewing.
Seeing them means taking a road trip. And the highway west through Sichuan province goes from smooth to something else.
At the end of this rough road is Wolong, where the pandas roam. But China’s original panda research center is mostly closed and returning to nature, save for a few remaining pandas, after being severely damaged by an earthquake in May 2008. A new panda spread just down the road in Gengda, still within the Wolong Nature Reserve, has been built for the masses. Wide paths meander among panda yards, and interpretive centers stand ready to house exhibits. There are buildings for panda research and care.
The pandas have arrived at the new Gengda center, too. Some seem restless, as if waiting for visitors to come and gawk.
The paradox is that for all of China’s success in nurturing a captive panda population, it remains just that: captive. The government has tried reintroducing pandas to the wild for years, with mixed success.
It’s a problem of adaptation and not-so-nice pandas that fight newcomers, says Wu Daifu, who oversees animal training at the original center.
“We have encountered a lot of difficulties,” he says. “For example, how to train the pandas. What we can do is change the environment of the pandas, let them adapt to the wild step by step.”
Then there are humans.
“The challenge I think our wild giant pandas face . . . is a problem of development,” says Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, which established the Wolong and the Hetaoping facilities. He’s known as “Papa Panda” for his role in overseeing the nation’s black-and-white brood. “There are many highways, hydroelectric power stations being built. They separate the panda’s habitat.”
Estimates put the country’s wild panda population at more than 1,800; a new count has 422 living in captivity.
Of course, the animals also play another role — providing the soft (and adorable) diplomatic power wielded by Chinese leaders through panda loans to zoos worldwide.
Down another, smoother road in Dujiangyan lies a third panda home, where a familiar and beloved figure, Tai Shan, can be found. He’s the big brother of Bao Bao and Bei Bei back in Washington. The panda became a superstar in 2005 as the first born at the National Zoo to survive and grow up. Then China, owner of all pandas, wanted to take possession of Tai Shan in 2010. Now he is a hefty 30-something, in panda years. In human years, he’s 10. That birthday, on July 9, drew fans for a party. Cake was served.
Tai Shan may have a history as a celebrity, but he still gets nervous around strangers, his handler says. When a Washington Post reporter first approached, he turned around, put up his stubby tail and relieved himself.
In another part of the Dujiangyan base, two cubs are being fed by keeper Gao Qiang. They are more hungry than nervous — the innocence of youth.
It is hard to look away when pandas eat. Or to do anything. Their presence elicits rapt stares and sometimes squeals from humans. By nature’s cruel standards, the animals should be extinct: Making panda babies is tough, and bamboo is what Donald Trump might call a low-energy food that’s terrible. The wilderness of Sichuan province is a dangerous place. But all of that seems irrelevant when you look like a stuffed animal.
Back at Chengdu airport (just as in many other parts of China, a new aerodrome is under construction), there is one last panda encounter. At the gate, a seated, smiling cartoon panda gazes from a plastic-covered sign, wishing travelers “Bon Voyage.”